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Salmon River Race

Pirates v. Superheroes in the Klamath-Trinity wilds



For many paddlers, running stout whitewater sometimes just isn't enough. To make it really interesting, they need to party all night, dress up like pirates and superheroes, then race each other down the stout whitewater. A few weeks ago I competed in a superheros versus pirates themed race down the Salmon River, which flows into the Klamath River not too far upstream from Orleans. The event, organized by paddler Paul Gamache, was a benefit for the family of Sean Langevin, who died on November 9th 2007 after his army unit was ambushed while on patrol in Afghanistan.

The drainage basin of the Salmon River is almost completely covered by federally designated wilderness, making it one of the few streams in the region largely unimpaired by logging, agriculture or development. The confluence of the Klamath and Salmon rivers is considered the center of the world to the Karuk Tribe. The gin clear water supports the last remaining run of spring Chinook salmon on the Klamath River upstream of the Trinity River confluence, as well as summer and winter run steelhead, and green sturgeon bigger than most kayaks.

My friend Dan, the winner of last year's race, was supposed to pick me up on Friday around noon, but he didn't make it until about three in the afternoon. When he did finally show up, we loaded my gear and three kayaks into his grey pickup and headed east.

As we were coming over Berry Summit, a group of turkey vultures huddled near the carcass of an unfortunate deer. For some reason, they all scattered when we drove by, and we smashed one with the windshield going 60 miles per hour. It was loud, very loud, and it scarred us both into silence. Seconds later we looked at each other and laughed like bandits. The poor bird stayed in the air, but given the noise it made when it hit, we questioned the integrity of its bones and viscera. After the turkey vulture incident, we made a brief stop in Willow Creek so that I could pick up a long kayak for use in the race — longer kayaks tend to be faster than shorter ones.

Our plan was to run the Nordheimer stretch of the Salmon, where the race would be held, in order to practice and check out the lines. I had only paddled it once before, and the class IV and V rapids were a bit of a blur in my memory (whitewater is rated from I to V, V being the most challenging). As we got closer to the put in, I grilled Dan about the rapids and the lines that paddlers are supposed to take. I did my best to memorize them and visualize myself paddling them; Bloomer's Falls, Airplane Turn and Achilles — the rapid with a big hole on the right named after Peter Sturges who sprained both ankles in 1982 after plowing straight into a rock. After Achilles comes Big Joe, followed by the formidable Freight Train, which would serve as the finish line for the race.

When we got to Nordhiemer campgroud, the race headquarters, there were hundreds of people. About 60 of them were there to race, but along with them came a cadre of people to run shuttles, watch the race, enjoy the sunshine, party, or run the river without the added pressure of dressing up like it was Halloween and going fast through difficult rapids. Cars and trucks covered in stickers and sporting license plates from Oregon, Washington and Idaho filled multiple campsites. Racks on top of the vehicles were strewn with wet gear from practice runs and colorful boats of all sorts: kayaks, rafts, catarafts and whitewater canoes.

Dan and I headed down to the put in for our practice run. I set my boat down on the gravel bar and bent over to tighten the drain plug. Just then, I felt an incredible blow to the head, right over my ear. I staggered down the gravel bar, holding my ear while the ringing raged. When Dan had set his boat down next to mine, he had swung it off his shoulder, giving my head a big high five with his boat. The afternoon's smattering of libations and the jarring whack to the side of my head seem to cancel each other out, and I was ready to run this river I had only paddled once before, in an unwieldy and uncomfortable kayak three feet longer than anything I had paddled since I was a teenager.

Shortly after we put in, it became clear that I would not be contending with Dan. His kayak made a wake when he paddled, as if there was a motor under the boat somewhere. After just a few minutes of sprinting down the river, my arms and shoulders burned as if they had never paddled before. I decided that I would be happy just to keep him in my sights for the race, which I found out later was wishful thinking. Our run was fun and uneventful, just the way I like it.

A band along with DJ's, rappers and turn tables lit up the otherwise quiet air on Friday night. Three kegs were emptied in short order but the party continued late into the night — or early into the morning, rather. River people were getting loose and loving it. I heard the next day that the faction that "won the party" went to bed around six in the morning.

After a group photo around noon – nobody wants to race early in the morning after dancing and drinking late into the night – all the racers readied their crafts and situated their costumes. Fake hair in a variety of colors, capes, face paint, plastic swords, eye patches and other accessories adorned the competitors.

The mass start was pandemonium. I struggled to get around rafts and catarafts. Oars and paddles and angry hungover pirates churned around me. As I attempted to pass a black and yellow cataraft, the paddler made no attempt to let me around, even though we both knew that my passing him was inevitable. Nine foot oars flying in the air like the clumsy wings of a baby bird, he laid one of the blades right into the back of my helmet, hard. I shot him the stink eye and skated by. Well, just like the day before, a solid thump to the cranium energized me and I was ready to charge.

I went to the right with several other boats at the first fork in the river, while Dan and others went left — this proved to be a crucial error. Dan and Chris Hatton, who owns the Somes Bar Store, pulled out in front and I was running in third place behind them. I watched Dan drop into the first rapid, Bloomer's Falls, fifty or so yards downstream of me. At some point thereafter, two other kayakers slowly passed me. My brief hope of placing in the race faded to a distant number five. Midway through the race, I began to lose sight of the fourth place paddler; with no one in front of me to follow, I had to recall the lines that I attempted to memorize the day before. I replayed them in my head, repeating the names and visualizing my path through them. At the rapid called Cascade, the backside of a large lateral wave coming off the bedrock wall on the left seemed impossibly tall and steep as I crashed down through the whitewater.

I knew when Dan pulled out in front at the start, nobody was going to catch him. After I crossed the finish line and climbed up on some rocks to watch the racers paddle through Freight Train, I slapped him a high five. We watched bright rafts full of crazy pirates and loud and happy superheroes stream by. One raft smashed another into a bedrock wall then passed the beleaguered craft just a few yards upstream of the finish line. Kayakers not willing to try so hard, probably because they gave it their all the night before, trickled through.

The race was roughly 45 minutes of hell — arms and stomach and shoulders burning, sitting in a cumbersome kayak with a seat and outfitting so loose I felt like I could fall out at any moment. I can't wait to do it next year.

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